Along with millions of Americans, I've been riding the latest, most terrifying roller coaster in America: the 2016 presidential campaign. Chock-full of scandal, conspiracy theories, pundits, and polls, the race to the White House has as much drama as a Netflix original series.
But in the midst of the circus, I have found myself drawn to a single issue that serves as my proverbial litmus test for determining who would make the best president.
I believe the single most important issue in American politics is integrity — that is, a constancy of moral character that fosters trust. More important than any policy on economics or healthcare is the ability of a candidate to rebuild trust in the system to which we all belong.
And this can only be done by a candidate who possesses integrity.
The state of American politics is not pretty. And if scandals and impropriety are not bad enough, we are also plagued by a destructive form of the blame game. Whether from the media or the politicians themselves, this contentious finger pointing shapes the basic ethos of American political discourse into something fundamentally characterized by distrust.
Whether it is distrust of particular persons or political philosophies, Americans seem to hold little trust in those who work inside the beltway. A 2015 Pew Research study found that 74 percent of Americans believe elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country.
“Our trust is gone,” said one resident of Flint, Mich., amid the water crisis.
When distrust becomes the norm, everybody loses. There are no longer any winners in this game: We all drown in the same sea of distrust. The most rational arguments are powerless against the posture of distrust. The best policies are rendered impotent against distrust.
What good is the election of a candidate that cannot be trusted by half the country? Are we really so foolish to believe that this can bring change, or, more importantly, healing and unity?
There is a reason that the personification of evil is characterized as a deceiver (Rev. 12:9) and given the name “father of lies” (John 8:44). Distrust is the original form of violence (Gen. 3).
When deceit is pervasive, we lose our ability to build healthy community, which is the heart of our identity as human beings made in the image of the Triune God.
Moral integrity is not always an easy thing to evaluate, and in a politics of appearances it becomes somewhat elusive. But we must remember that integrity can be examined objectively.
The popular American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, wrote in The Work of Theology, “To ‘have character’ at the very least means that the person can be trusted to be who he or she seems to be, that is, the person has acquired a moral history that means what he or she does and does not do ‘makes sense.’”
Integrity is measured not by what a candidate promises, but how a candidate has lived his or her life for decades.
I’m inclined to believe that my “single issue” is a fundamentally Christian approach. In the books of Psalms and Proverbs we find a consistent emphasis on integrity as the heart of our life with God (Ps. 26, 41; Prov. 10, 11, 19, 20). More than this, the teachings of Jesus focus deeply on the health of the heart. The sermon on the mount is not about shallow ethics or legalisms — it is about the integrity of our hearts.
Jesus understood that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit, and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. Jesus invites his disciples to seek first God’s rule and righteousness, which seems to be characterized by nothing less than purity of heart.
This is the “single issue” of Jesus’s political movement.
At the end of the day, America cannot improve its plight unless we restore trust by electing leaders with integrity. A functioning democracy presupposes the ability to trust what people say is the truth. And that might be the saddest part to this election season: Our increasing distrust is evidence of our longing for a society rooted in truth. The surge of support for candidates who "tell it like it is" is but a symptom of a deeper longing for someone who will simply tell us the truth and restore trust. But until the voters demand that our candidates possess integrity, the disease of distrust will continue its destructive epidemic.